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On Stranger Tides

Thursday, May 26th, 2011 | Posted by Jackson Kuhl

Cover for the 1988 Ace MMPB.Extolling the virtues of Tim Powers to this audience is probably preaching to the choir, but if you haven’t yet read On Stranger Tides, get thee to Amazon. It was the first Powers I ever read. It’s still my favorite.

The fourth Pirates of the Caribbean movie, neither based nor inspired but rather “suggested by the novel by Tim Powers,” is so-so. It has a clumsy first act, full of cameos and nudge-nudge references to the original film; and the leaden action and fighting choreography is wound into slow-motion by the editing. The biggest problem is POV: the story shouldn’t have had Jack as the main character but rather should have, like Curse of the Black Pearl, focused on the straight man (here, the missionary Philip) whose path intersects with Sparrow’s. That said, it’s not as bad as some of the reviews say. I found the mermaid sequence in Whitecap Bay delightful and I’ll gladly pay $9 to watch Geoffrey Rush channel Robert Newton (or to listen to Penelope Cruz’s accent) anytime. The film’s biggest stars are actually the percussive guitars of Rodrigo Y Gabriela who, along with Hans Zimmer, give the score a Spanish Main emotion missing from the previous installments.

If only the filmmakers had adapted Powers whole cloth! In the 1987 novel, 18th-century puppeteer John Chandagnac — or Jack Shandy, as he becomes known — accidentally falls in with pirates and thereby enters a heretofore unknown world of sorcery and West African animism. The buccaneers of the Caribbean, it turns out, are magicians who can manipulate spirits. Blackbeard himself is a master warlock, but having become infested with vodun loas, must seek out the Fountain of Youth to banish them; he keeps them at bay by drinking gunpowder and burning slow matches in his hair. And he’s not even the main antagonist. Shandy must meanwhile race to save his love from a horrific plot involving zombies and body swapping.

The film throws this rich Caribbean mythology out the window: Ian McShane’s Blackbeard simply has a magic sword and it’s never clear if his grotesque zombie officers are the undead or what. The conniving loas are gone. Nor are there any ship-to-ship battles (Powers has a wonderful engagement in the first chapter: “From out across the blue water rolled a loud, hollow knock, like a large stone dropped onto pavement. Curious, Chandagnac… was distracted by the abrupt white plume of a splash on the face of the sea, a hundred yards ahead to starboard.”). Alas. But I knew a faithful adaptation was not in the works when I read that “Entire characters were added at Depp’s request.” So if the film is mediocre, it was the star who kept it from outright disaster.

It's Jack Sparrow! Or should I say JACK SHANDY!Perhaps the oddest result of Disney buying the rights to the book is that their partner Lego has released a line of sets recreating scenes from the film. Which means there are now Lego sets based, in part, on a Tim Powers novel. Take a moment to wrap your head around that.

Nautical or maritime sword-&-sorcery is, for me, two great tastes that taste great together. (Have I mentioned that I have a biography of an American Revolutionary sea captain and privateer out next month? Because if not, then allow me to inform you that I have a biography of an American Revolutionary sea captain and privateer out next month.) It’s a shame there isn’t more of it on the stands. But maybe I’m overlooking some titles. What say ye? Has anyone read Howard’s Lamb collection Swords From the Sea (which I believe Bill reviews in BG 15)? How’s Mieville’s The Scar? Hugh Cook’s The Walrus & The Warwolf? What would you recommend?

6 Comments »

  1. Hey Jackson – a fine review. Nice to see some love for ON STRANGER TIDES. It’s one of the novels I mention in my editorial in BG 15.

    As for nautical fantasy, I’d also love to review of Robin Hobb’s MAD SHIPS some time…

    Comment by John ONeill - May 26, 2011 10:48 pm

  2. We saw Rodrigo y Gabriela in concert in Baltimore the year before last–awesome!

    Not all reviewers are giving the movie bad reviews. My most trusted critic, meaning the one whose tastes seem to most closely align with my tastes, is Richard Roeper, and he gave it a B+. (And he thought Inception was the best movie of last year, which definitely aligns with my tastes.)

    Comment by awsnyde - May 27, 2011 6:38 am

  3. I loved the book On Stranger Tides. I had no idea what it was going to be about when I picked it up to read (after discovering Powers’ Last Call) but I found it a great adventure story.

    There is a Lamb collection titled Swords From the Sea that has 7 or 8 Viking stories, a search for the northEAST passage by English explorers, an overland expedition to fight the Barbary pirates, and a couple of other goodies, though no actual Carribbean action.

    Comment by Managing Editor Howard Andrew Jones - May 27, 2011 7:32 am

  4. I love Mieville’s The Scar. Good review/ article by the way.

    Comment by sftheory1 - May 27, 2011 8:24 am

  5. Thanks everyone!

    Joe Morgenstern at the WSJ, whom I generally trust, excoriated the movie. I tried to find a copy of his review to link to, but apparently the WSJ doesn’t archive his stuff. Anyway, it’s not as bad as he said.

    Definitely will check out Swords From the Sea and The Scar.

    Comment by Jackson Kuhl - May 27, 2011 11:51 am

  6. The week that the new Pirates of the Caribbean opened, I was walking along Hollywood Blvd. with Tim, helping him carry his pack of Cokes from the convenience store over the the Writers of the Future Workshop. All of Hollywood Blvd. was plastered with enormous Pirates of the Caribbean posters (it was opening at the El Capitan, which Disney owns) and huge props that dwarfed most of the buildings. You couldn’t escape seeing it every place you looked.

    So I turned to Tim and asked him, “Hey, do you ever want to stop somebody on Hollywood Blvd. and point up at one of these massive signs and say, ‘Hey, that’s mine! That’s based on a book of mine!’?”

    I thought he would say ‘no,’ since of course the movie was only loosely based on the book. But his face just brightened up, and he said, “Yeah! It’s so weird. I made up that phrase, ‘On stranger tides,’ and now it’s all over the place.”

    Tim is such a cool guy.

    Comment by Ryan Harvey - May 27, 2011 8:14 pm


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